Utamaro-A glimpse into Japan’s sexual ‘floating world’ of yesteryear

Thank goodness for sex, otherwise humanity would miss so out on so much great art.

A one-of-a-kind exhibit, Inventing Utamaro, opens at the Arthur M. Sackler museum in Washington D.C. April 9th. Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro’s large painting, Moon at Shinagawa, owned by the Freer Gallery of Art, has been joined by two other related paintings, Fukagawa in the Snow and Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara. 

Don’t let the prim-and-proper names scare you off.

Utamaro, born in 1753, specialized in paintings and wood block prints about the ukiyo or “floating world” – the ‘entertainment’ area of Edo (now known as Tokyo) that included the well-organized and legal brothels.

Yes. We’re back to sex. But, non-explicit, so don’t be scared to bring children to the exhibit of a stunning triptych of Asian art.

Guest curator Julie Nelson Davis of the University of Pennsylvania  teamed up with the Freer Gallery of Art’s senior curator of Japanese art James Ulak for the exhibit.

This is the world of elegant, educated seduction for profit. The paintings are  inhabited by exquisite women clad in vibrantly colorful kimonos, some holding children, all happy. Cherished pets run about.  The painted cherry blossoms flutter like the real ones on the trees outside the museum.

The three oversized paintings – one scroll, the others, screens — are an idealized, artistic  view of the world of the sex workers of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara is likely set in the quarter where thousands of prostitutes entertained their clients. The Moon at Shinagawa is set an ‘entertainment’ house. In the Fukagawa in the Snow, the women were entertainers. Davis pointed out that the women’s kimono bows tied in the front, signified they were prostitutes.

This was not the reality of the sex trade in that world. The Sackler includes an accompanying exhibit points out that in reality,  “many women died during their time of service” with the “average age of death was twenty-one.”

Utamaro was a popular commercial artist also who produced wood block prints, and folded illustrated books. The Sackler has one of the carved wood blocks on display.

It’s worth picking up the small pamphlet put out by the museum to understand why the topics were chosen by the printers. In line with the censorship of the period,  prints  could only “represent approved subjects” such as “beautiful people” and “famous places.” No politics.

Who the triptych of scrolls were made for is uncertain but research suggests they may have been created for Zenno Ihei of Tochigi in the late 1780s. The trio were apparently painted at different times over fifteen years. They were first exhibited together at the Joganji Temple in Tochigi in Japan in 1879. The noted collector Charles Lang Freer bought “Moon at Shinagawa” in 1903.

Viewers are unlikely to ever see them together again because paintings of the Freer Gallery are not loaned. “Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara” came from the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, and “Snow at Fukagawa” is from the Wadsworth Atheneum Musem of Art in Connecticut for this singular exhibit.

The exhibit runs from April 8th to July 9th, 2017 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.


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